Europe > Britain and Ireland > Ireland > Southwest Ireland > County Cork
County Cork (Contae Chorcaí) is in Southwest Ireland, and historically part of the province of Munster. It's the largest county in the Republic, and Cork is the country's second largest city, with many visitor attractions. It has lush farmland dotted by defensive turrets such as Blarney Castle, and a rugged Atlantic coastline.
City and harbour
- 1 Cork is the lively city at the heart of the county.
- 2 Cobh is the city's port, departure point for some 2.5 million emigrants.
- 3 Crosshaven has sailing and walking.
- 4 Blarney Castle is itself a prime example of "Blarney".
- 5 Macroom is where the Lee valley meets the mountains on the road to Kerry.
- 6 Mallow has the racetrack and is the main town in north Cork.
- 7 Youghal is a small port, once home to Sir Walter Raleigh.
- 8 Kinsale has two forts guarding its historic harbour.
- 9 Clonakilty was the birthplace of Michael Collins.
- 10 Skibbereen is by the foot of Mizen Head peninsula.
- 11 Castletownshend is a small relaxing harbour village.
- 12 Baltimore has sailing and scuba diving, and ferries to Sherkin and Cape Clear islands.
- 13 Schull is a sailing and fishing village.
- 14 Bantry is a good base for all three of Cork's main peninsulas.
- 15 Glengarriff has the gardens of Garinish Island.
- 16 Castletownbere is the main town on Beara peninsula.
- 1 Three peninsulas form the southwest tip of Cork: Mizen Head to the south, Sheep's Head in the middle and Beara to the north. Bantry is at the base of the middle peninsula and has roads to all three.
- 2 Carbery's Hundred Isles are an archipelago in Roaringwater Bay. They actually number about 50, if you discount mere rocks, and several are inhabited. Those with a ferry service are Sherkin Island and Cape Clear from Baltimore, Heir Island from Cunnamore near Skibbereen, and Long Island from Schull.
- 3 Fastnet: now you really are getting away from it all. It's a wave-lashed islet with a lighthouse, 13 km beyond the Cork mainland, the most southerly point in Ireland. Boat trips visit in summer from Baltimore and Schull.
County Cork (Contae Chorcaí) on the south coast of Ireland is the Republic's largest county by area, and in 2016 had a population of 542,000, concentrated around the city of Cork and its large natural harbour. Most of the area is lowland and fertile, along the valleys of the rivers Bandon, Lee (flowing through Cork) and Blackwater (the boundary with County Waterford). This attracted settlers from elsewhere, notably the Vikings, Anglo-Normans and Tudors, using the many small harbours and tidal channels. The county became dotted with early Christian monasteries, stone turrets and other fortifications. The incomers came into conflict with the ancient Kingdom of Deas Mumhan or South Munster, anglicised as "Desmond" - not until 1601 was this broken.
The southwest of the county by contrast is poor stony land, with a rugged convoluted coastline, small fishing villages and a scatter of islands. Life here was hand-to-mouth even in the good years, and then came the bad - the district around Skibbereen was among the worst stricken in Ireland during the Great Famine of 1845-49. Cork's harbours became busy with the export of Ireland's people to America, with lonely Fastnet their last glimpse of the Old Country. But the 19th century invented tourism and re-defined what we regard as "scenic", so these bleak depopulated hills and headlands became the county's prime draw, and still are. Here too are many Neolithic and Bronze Age relics, which elsewhere were cleared for farmland.
A last stand against English influence was in 1921 / 22, after Ireland achieved independence, but at the price of Partition. The new country was plunged into civil war, and the anti-Treaty faction was especially strong in County Cork, proclaiming a breakaway "Republic of Munster". Almost the last shot of that war felled the pro-Treaty leader and local man Michael Collins. This means that many centenaries fall in 2021 / 22, of local or national significance.
Some 15,000 people in the county are Irish speakers, concentrated in Cork itself and in the northwestern Múscraí (Muskerry) area. Everyone speaks English, in the "sing-song" southwest Irish pattern - listen to the football manager Roy Keane for an example of Cork diction.
Cork Airport (ORK IATA) is 6 km south of Cork city center. It has flights from UK and Europe but is too small for direct long-haul aircraft. If you're flying in and renting a car, which you'll need to explore the southwest, then Dublin (DUB IATA) or Shannon (SNN IATA) might also work well.
Trains run hourly from Dublin Heuston, taking 2 hr 40 min to Cork via Kildare, Portlaoise, Ballybrophy, Thurles, Limerick Junction and Mallow. There are also rail connections from Limerick city, Waterford and Tralee.
There are no through-buses to Ireland from UK or the continent: change in London for the ferry ports. Buses run hourly from Dublin Airport (3 hr 30 min) and Busáras (3 hr) to Cork.
A bus runs hourly from Galway via Ennis, Shannon Airport, Limerick and Mallow to Cork, with a faster bus every 2-3 hours.
Buses run from Rosslare ferry harbour via Wexford, Waterford, Dungarvan and Youghal to Cork.
Bus routes radiate from Cork. Buses from Dublin are non-stop to Cork so for other towns you have to change there: Bus 251 for Blarney, 220X for Crosshaven, 226 for Kinsale, 237 for Clonakilty, Skibbereen, Baltimore and Schull, and 236 for Bantry, Glengarriff and Castletownbere. Expressway Bus 40 trundles right across Ireland from Rosslare to Tralee; within this county it links Youghal, Cork and Macroom. For Cobh, Midleton and Mallow take the train.
There are very few cross-country buses between the radial routes, so you might have to double back via Cork. See individual towns for Local Link bus services. These are generally too sparse for visitors, running once or twice a week, but a few are practical ways of getting in and around, eg the Kinsale-Clonakilty service.
Cork City Tours operate a hop-on hop-off bus tour of Cork, and excursions to the Jameson Distillery, all of which you can easily visit independently. But they also have long day trips out to far-flung spots like Mizen Head and Ring of Kerry, very difficult to reach without your own car. They hope to restart excursions in spring 2021.
The only railways in the county are around Cork city: the mainline from Dublin Heuston via Mallow, and commuter lines to Midleton and Cobh.
Bicycling is pleasant on the quieter roads, but there are no traffic-free bike lanes outside Cork city. In the west expect to cycle in the teeth of a stiff Atlantic breeze, which will somehow fail to be at your back when you return east.
Car hire is available at the airport and in Cork city, with all the major companies represented.
- Cork city needs a few days to explore. City centre architecture is Georgian / Victorian, such as St Finbarre's cathedral, St Anne's with the Shandon Bells, the city gaol, and the English Market; while modern design is seen on the University campus.
- Easy day-trips from the city are Blarney for its touristy castle and Blarney stone, Fota wildlife park and Arboretum, and Cobh the colourful port.
- Other small ports were more important in bygone times: Youghal was a walled Tudorbethan town, and Kinsale was worth defending with two forts - one formidable, the other overgrown.
- To the west, Ireland ends in stony peninsulas dotted with prehistoric sites. Bantry is a good base for exploring them.
- Night skies are a lost cause near the city, but the rural places are free of light pollution. On a clear night, get away from the street lights and give your eyes 20 min to adjust, and the Milky Way and other objects will swim into view as never before.
- Road Bowling is the Irish team sport of hurling a small cannonball down a public road. Wherever it stops, the next shot is taken from there, until one team crosses the finish line. It's played especially in County Cork and in County Armagh so you may well find a game along a back lane.
- The Wild Atlantic Way is the coastal driving route from Cork away up to Donegal. You're unlikely to want to do it all in one trip, it's best to explore one region at a time. It starts at Old Kinsale Head and heads west via Timoleague, Clonakilty, Galley Head, Glandore, Toe Head Bay, Skibbereen, Baltimore, Inishbeg, Cunnamore, Heir and Sherkin Islands, Ballydehob, Schull, Toormore and Barley Cove to Mizen Head. It then heads north via Sheep's Head to Whiddy Island, Bantry, Glengarriff, Castletownbere and Bere Island then Dursey Island. After Derryvegal you cross into County Kerry towards Kenmare. There isn't a fixed route, it's up to you whether you follow all the convolutions of the coast and hop to the islands, or shortcut on the main highway further inland.
- Try to learn a few words of Irish every now and again. (Dia dhuit a chara - Hello friend).
- In ports such as Cobh learn sailing, power-boating and navigation.
- Theatres and cinemas are concentrated in Cork but there's a few in the other towns.
- Gaelic games: the County GAA play home games in Cork, with Páirc Uí Chaoimh as the main stadium and Páirc Uí Rinn their second ground. There are some 180 club teams across the county.
- Fishing: there's sea angling, and coarse angling on the many lakes and rivers. The salmon-fishing rivers are the Bandon, and the Blackwater bordering County Waterford; the River Lee was finished off by a hydroelectric dam.
- Surfing: popular spots include Garretstown near Kinsale, Castlefreke near Clonakilty and Barleycove on the Mizen peninsula.
- Scuba diving: lots of shipwrecks, from shallow recreational stuff covered in marine life, to deep dark technical wrecks. There are a few inland sites but really only for novice training or if your sea-trip got blown out. Baltimore is a good centre.
- A Taste of West Cork is a food festival held in several villages in September. The next is 3-12 Sept 2021.
- Cork has the biggest selection.
- Clonakilty black pudding and Macroom oatmeal are local specialties.
- Hotels and bars are often a good bet for food especially in the smaller places.
- Some standouts are Max's in Kinsale, An Súgán in Clonakilty, Customs House in Baltimore, O'Connors in Bantry, Breen's in Castletownbere and Ballymaloe House near Midleton.
- The pubs often have decent bar food and live music, and are open to 23:00 or later.
- Cork has a huge selection. An Bróg (meaning "The Shoe") has one woozy regular who's beginning to suspect they don't sell shoes.
- Youghal was used in the 1956 film Moby Dick to represent New Bedford, and Moby Dick's pub was the base for director John Huston.
- In Clonakilty, raise a glass in Donovan's Hotel to the only wartime USAF crew member to survive an emergency landing only to be drunk to death by overwhelming Irish hospitality. He was called Tojo and he was a monkey. He may even have been navigating, as the crew thought they were over Norway.
- Distilleries and breweries: best known (and heavily marketed) is the Jameson distillery at Midleton near Cork. Others are in Kinsale, Skibbereen and Cape Clear Island off Baltimore. These may offer tours, and it's worth sampling their products anyway.
- Cork city has the widest selection, with several hotels getting rave reviews.
- Beyond the city, top rated places include Eccles Hotel in Glengarriff, Bridge House B&B in Skibbereen, The Castle in Castletownshend, and Inchydoney Island Lodge near Clonakilty,
- See Lismore for Ballyvolane House, 38 km northeast of Cork.
For emergency assistance (police, ambulance, fire & rescue and coastguard), phone 112 or 999.
South Doc provide out-of-hours primary medical services across the county, +353 1850 335 999.
- Northwest is County Kerry, with wild hills and rugged harbours similar to the far west of County Cork.
- North is County Limerick, with ruined castles of the Desmond dynasty, a prehistoric complex, and the interesting city of Limerick.
- Northeast is County Tipperary, where top sights are Holycross near Thurles and the Rock of Cashel.
- East is County Waterford, mostly lush country with mansions and gardens, especially around Lismore.